's 2014 Horror Write-off:

"The Dead Floor"

Submitted by Brian Parris

The promotion meant that he would get to lead his own team with his own office now, and the extra twenty thousand a year certainly didn't hurt either. Jason thought that sounded pretty good for 29. The marketing world was a young person's game again, especially with the advent of social media and the emerging dominance of online streaming over cable TV providing brand new outlets for reaching consumers. Familiarity with new technology and new ideas meant that naturally the next generation of industry leaders would likely be the youngest in a long time. The only catch, of course, was that the job necessitated moving to Cincinnati.

Cincinnati. Fairly far from his native New England. Jason had never even been to Ohio before, save for changing planes in Columbus on a trip to Oregon with his parents and sister years ago when he'd been a kid. What's more, he had no family in the state and absolutely no friends or contacts out that way. It seemed none of his old college buddies had managed to make their way out there, opting for greener pastures in places like Atlanta, New York or LA. For all intents and purposes he would find himself completely on his own. A foreigner; a lone travelling pilgrim on a haj whose holy mission was to pack the most eye-catching part of a YouTube ad into the first five seconds before you got the option to skip it.

Fortunately for him, his firm was a preferred employer with some of the real estate companies that managed apartment buildings in the city, so finding a place had been a lot easier than he'd feared. He ended up settling on a 2-bedroom loft on the fourth floor of a seven story building close to downtown. It had been part of a historic factory complex, recently redone and converted into apartments, and he was to be among its' first residential occupants. According to Sindi With an 'S', the bubbly agent who'd given him the tour and who had introduced herself as if her name was one long word- Sindiwithaness, the lower floors had filled up first and there was only one other occupant on the fourth in unit 401 down the hall. There still weren't any tenants yet on the floors above. For the time being, he wouldn't have to worry about loud neighbors throwing raucous parties, or anyone calling the cops if he should have one of his own. Jason signed the lease and officially moved out of the Marriott that weekend.

It was a few days later when he started to notice more about the building next door. Sitting at his kitchen island and looking out of his large windows after doing some unpacking, he really registered for the first time that it took up almost all of the view. Another apartment building just as tall sat right next to his, separated by a narrow one-way side street. Jason's windows faced theirs, and if one had a mind to, they were close enough that it would be possible to throw something across to someone waiting to catch it in another window. He imagined clothes lines hung between them like some nineteenth century tenement in a period piece. Very Gangs of New York, yelling gossip to your cross-the-way neighbors while kids tried to chat through bean cans on string. Except, he recalled, that wouldn't be possible for him. There was nobody living in the fourth floor of the building over there.

"It's a dead floor," Sindi had told him when explaining about the building and the view, as if trying to find a way to spin the lack of skyline out the windows into a selling point. She was good at her job. "You won't have to worry about any lights over there shining into your place, or people being able to see you if you forget to close the curtains and walk out of the shower!" He'd laughed politely at that. The lower windows over there made up the offices of the graphic design studio that occupied the first two stories of the building, and above it were clearly lived-in apartments, but directly across from him there was nobody home. It was admittedly a little creepy. You could see a layer of dust on the inside of the dark windows if the sun hit them right, and Jason wondered how a building so seemingly modern in a vibrant city could willingly tolerate a dead floor and forfeit the income of renting it out.

His mind also wandered to other questions that made him shudder a little for reasons he didn't quite understand, like whether the elevator over there had a disabled '4' button, or what would happen if it got stuck on the fourth floor while you were riding down. What if it opened the doors? Was the floor locked off from the stairwells? What would you do? What would you see? He sipped his coffee and returned to reality. He had a video call with the office at 2:45 that afternoon and he wanted to finish more unpacking before then. He was using the second bedroom of the loft as a temporary storage space, but he had several ideas for what he could turn it into given time. Maybe a man-cave, with a nice plasma screen and shelf space to display all of his track and field trophies from Dartmouth. Maybe a guest room. Maybe both. In either case he tried not to think about the fact that the master bedroom, which he'd naturally taken for himself, had a window next to his bed that faced out at the dead floor.

The next few weeks passed by quickly, and busily. Getting set up at work, getting set up at home. Jason met his new team and was relieved to find that they were, for the most part, veterans with lots of good ideas who required only occasional direct supervision to approve something or mitigate a dispute of opinion. At the end of the first month, his office had even landed their first new account, and although it was only a small indie brand of organic energy bars, they all felt like a little celebration was in order. That Friday evening, after takeout from their favorite curry house nearby, the whole staff visited several local bars and pubs- Jason's treat. Many regrettable cell phone pictures and embarrassing stories were born in the spirit of youthful corporate bonding. So it was that he stumbled back home just shy of 1am, and after a night full of libations and the spaghetti-chili bar appetizers his coworkers had forced him to try, the only thing Jason wanted to think about was dragging himself to bed. He laid down on top of the covers and fell asleep with his jacket still on.

He awoke after only a couple of hours. He forgot that usually happened when he'd had a few. He dug his phone out of his pocket. It was 3:34 in the morning. He rose with a sigh, and after getting a glass of water(and taking an aspirin for good measure) he got himself properly attired for bed. He lay back down on his side, and just as he was about to close his eyes again, he happened to look out the window. He'd left the curtains open, and over the narrow street he could see the windows of the empty floor across from him illuminated by moonlight. It was distracting, and bright, and he was about to roll over to turn away from it when he noticed the movement. Someone was in one of the windows. The one right across from his room. Whoever it was took their hands off of the glass, and turned away. It definitely wasn't a reflection of any kind. Jason watched with growing horror as the figure, which appeared through the darkened glass to be a naked man, stepped further away out of the light and receded into the shadows of the dark room behind it, disappearing.

By this point he'd been frightened wide awake, and sober. He sprung from bed and yanked the curtains closed, then ran out of his room to make sure the ones in the kitchen were drawn shut as well. He spent the rest of the night out on the couch with his laptop, watching cartoons online and trying to calm himself down from this inexplicable episode until the comforting light of dawn finally gave him enough peace of mind to pass out again. When he finally got up for good, well past noon, he couldn't believe he'd been so skittish. He had come home drunk. There was no way he could trust any pink elephants he saw, and he'd been in a state of mind very susceptible to suggestion. He could have been nearly asleep again and dreamed the figure was there. He'd had wakeful dreams like that before, although not since he'd been a teenager. He was almost finished admonishing himself as he went back into the bedroom to get dressed when curiosity got the better of him. He pulled the curtains aside and looked. Across the street, in full daylight, there were handprints in the dust on the window.

The curtains stayed closed at all times from then on, day and night. He kept trying to rationalize it, find some way to come to terms with what he now had proof he'd seen. There had to be a realistic explanation. Even at work, it started to intrude on his thoughts. A homeless person or a junkie might have gotten into the building somehow. God knows there were enough of them around, even in trendy, populous downtown. He'd been panhandled while taking the trash out to the dumpster before a time or two, always harmless but unpleasant bums. One of them must have snuck into the building and gotten into the stairwells, which must not be locked after all on the unused 4th floor. Or maybe they'd forced the lock. Either way, it'd be a pretty warm, decent place to squat or shoot up unbothered for awhile away from people who would alert the cops to come and accost you. That had to be it. Maybe he could contact the building managers or super over there and let them know to check in on it. Regardless, the issue served to make his feelings of isolation worse by reminding him how alone he really was on his own floor.

He did consider talking to his still-unseen neighbor in 401 down the hall to ask them if they'd ever seen anything unusual until he realized the positioning of their unit meant that their windows likely faced out the front of the building instead of next door, and they might not even be aware of the dead floor. He visited the design studio and succeeded in getting a phone number for their building management offices from the receptionist, but only reached a voicemail stating that their agents were available by appointment only and emergencies should be reported to the police. He would have to handle this by himself. So the curtains stayed drawn, and for almost another month there were no further incidents. Jason started putting in longer and longer hours at the office each week, and didn't want to admit to himself that it was because he felt uneasy going home.

One night in late October was unusually quiet. The ordinary city sounds of cars passing in the street or distant trains, while increasingly infrequent as the hours went by, had always been present in some capacity. For as long as he could remember, Jason had thought of night noises like those as comforting reminders of the presence of other people that made the world feel safe and normal. But tonight, there was nothing. It was as if everything outside of his apartment had somehow been put on mute. Around midnight, he was sitting in bed reading an article online when his concentration was broken by a sudden series of noises, outside but nearby, that were loud only because they were the only sounds around. A metal latching noise, followed by a short shriek of old wood sliding in a track. It was the sound of a window opening. The pit of Jason's stomach dropped, but he felt a burning, non-negotiable need to open the curtains and confirm what he already knew. He closed his laptop and after ten of the longest seconds he'd ever experienced, he finally brushed aside part of a curtain to make a gap just wide enough to admit half of his face to peek through.

The window across from his room was indeed open. And there was someone standing in it. The figure was leaning on the windowsill and seemed to be looking down towards the street when a cloud overhead moved and brought it fully to light. It was a pale and naked man, or at least the body seemed masculine. It was devastatingly thin; emaciated to a shocking degree. Jason recalled a picture from a high school history textbook of a Civil War soldier who'd been imprisoned in the notorious Andersonville death camp where men were starved to skin over skeletons. Whatever this thing was, it looked like that. He exhaled sharply on the glass in revulsion, and immediately wished he hadn't. Its' head snapped up, focusing directly towards him as if it somehow sensed him only then. He flinched in surprise and jerked back away from the window, but in doing so managed to pull the curtain all the way open. With his bedroom light still on, Jason was completely exposed and visible.

Maintaining complete silence, the thing reached both arms out, hands grasping the sides of the window frame. It pulled itself out until it was standing upright on the small ledge outside the sill. If it was a man, he was flagrantly disregarding the four-story drop yawning perilously beneath him at the tips of his toes. Jason was too frightened to even think by now, and watched in disbelieving, mute terror as it sprung out into space and moved with all the grace of a French parkour artist across the gap between them. The gap that even an Olympian pole-vaulter would have found too wide to try. It landed spread eagle and spider-like with a loud slam against the frame of his window that had Jason reeling back and falling onto his bed, where at last he got a good look at its' face. There were no facial features. It was like skin stretched taut as plastic wrap over a human skull. No mouth opening; not even a slit, but clenched teeth were visible underneath the skin. No nostrils. Flat skin stretched like a drum over what would have been empty eye sockets. The rest of its' bones stood out pointedly under its' pallid, blue-veined and hairless body.

The abomination seemed to stare in at him- if something eyeless could stare- for what felt like an eon but was probably closer to thirty seconds. It cocked its' head back and forth like a quizzical dog. Then, slowly, it turned its' attention upwards, and still without making any sound it climbed up the building. The limbs moved like a lizard's. Out of his window and out of sight, it disappeared towards the unoccupied apartments on the upper floors. Another half minute of silence, and then came a cacophonous crash of shattering glass, pieces of which fell twinkling past his view from above. It was the bedroom window of the unit directly upstairs being broken in. Jason only had to hear the first few footfalls overhead before he was finally jerked out of the paralytic state of utter black dread that held him. Up and moving; grabbing his jacket, finding shoes which were thrust on his feet and left untied, and mercifully remembering to snatch his keys before his adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight response devolved into the panicked, blind dash of a prey animal under the impression that it is about to die.

He ended up driving all the way to work. He couldn't think of anywhere else to go. He didn't know anyone well enough to call so late at night asking to come over, nor could he conjure up a convincing enough story to explain his need to. After spending the rest of the night in his office, many of his coworkers were surprised to find him in so early when they started to arrive. A few of them asked if he was alright. Though he prided himself on being professional to a fault, there was just no covering up how badly shaken he was. No one wanted to pressure him for further information, and they all tried their best not to bother him with anything trivial for the rest of the day. Jason felt strange walking around the office in sweatpants and his running shoes for the gym, but if anyone was allowed to, it was the boss.

He left the office early so it would still be light out. Gathering his courage to the best of his ability, he forced himself with great effort to reenter his apartment. Working quickly, he rounded up as many of his belongings as he could: laptop, personal items, important work papers, and several days' worth of clothes. Most of his furniture and other things had come with the loft, and it was surprising just how much of his life could fit neatly in only a duffel bag and an old backpack. At one point he knocked into a side table by accident, scaring himself and making a loud thump. When he heard muffled movement up above in the ceiling in answer, he decided he'd packed enough. After checking in to the same hotel where he'd first stayed when he arrived in town, Jason bought a one-way ticket back to Connecticut and called his parents to ask them if he could come stay for awhile. On the phone he stammered something about a business trip back to the area; the flight would give him enough time to think of a better story. He called in sick to work the next day and sent his resignation via email at the airport the day after that. But most of all he made a solemn promise to himself that the next job he accepted would have to come with a house.